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Off to the races in the Year of Horse
By Yao Minji

Liang Jie is expecting a “horse baby” in June. The 24-year-old trading firm assistant got married last summer and had planned to enjoy a year with her husband before they have a child.

“But a goat baby (a child born in 2015, which happens to be the Year of Goat), especially a girl, is said to lead a miserable life. Both my mom and my mother-in-law reminded me of that,” Liang says. “So we decided to have a child earlier to avoid the goat year.”

Beautiful, powerful and graceful, the horse (ma) is beloved by all, a source of many legends and great art.

People born in the Year of Horse are said to be swift, straightforward, independent and exuberant. They are intelligent, intuitive, observant, impatient and easily irritated. Many are believed to get married later in life because they don’t want to give up their freedom.

Famous “horses” include action star Jackie Chan, filmmaker Ang Lee and former Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Many Chinese believe certain zodiac signs are lucky and some are unlucky and, though there’s no basis in fact, these notions are passed down through generations.

“The Chinese zodiac has a big influence on our business,” California-based surrogate agency Extraordinary Conceptions tells Shanghai Daily. “It will be good this year because many Chinese clients want a horse baby.”

Seventy percent of the agency’s clients are Chinese.

The horse is a good sign, though not as auspicious as the dragon, a symbol of royalty and excellence. Hospitals around the country were packed with pregnant women in 2012, the Year of the Dragon.

Horses are considered to be fortunate animals, and according to some ancient Chinese texts, they are called “dragons on the ground.”

The dragon combines parts of other animals, including a horse’s head, snake’s body, fish’s scales, eagle’s claw, among others. In the classic Chinese adventure novel “Journey to the West,” the protagonist monk’s white horse is eaten by a dragon, which is then transformed into a horse that becomes the monk’s steed on his journey with his disciples.

Long ma refers to a great horse or a dragon-like horse, a legendary animal recorded texts from more than 2,000 years ago.

It has a dragon’s head (basically, a horse’s head), a horse’s body, dragon’s scales and a pair of wings. It is said to have carried one of the earliest ancient texts, which included an early version of the bagua (yin/yang) symbols.

“Long ma jing shen” or “energetic dragon-like horse” is an expression often used to praise or wish someone good health.

The horse was also among the first animals tamed by humans. Fossils and traces of horses have been excavated at archeological sites from the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC) more than 3,000 years ago. Historians explain that horses were rare at the time, more precious than cattle and were used only to pull carriages, not to carry riders.

The horse has long been a good human companion and many old sayings and legends involve the horse.

It is a Chinese tradition to bless others with the phrases that involve that year’s zodiac animal at the beginning of a new year. And horse-related blessings are among the most numerous and positive, covering different aspects of life.

Ma dao cheng gong, or success upon a horse’s arrival, has long been used to wish success. Yi ma dang xian describes riding the first horse in line, referring to someone who takes the lead and acts like a role model.

This year, Chinese people have invented new blessings involving the horse, with the help of photography. Ma shang or on top of the horse means immediately, and many people now put stacks of cash on top of toy horses and take photos. The image means getting money immediately.

Jerry Yin, an online toy animal seller, says he sold more than 200 toy horses in the first two weeks of 2014. He used a photo of cash on top of a horse to attract customers through social media. Customers posted their own versions of the money horse.

Traditionally, the horse has also been used as a metaphor for a talented person. For centuries, intellectuals played with the metaphor to express their ambition to serve the country and their hope to meet Bo Le, a legendary figure in heaven, the horse master in charge of the celestial steeds.

The term bo le also means someone who can spot great horses and talent. The first recorded bo le horse master was Sun Yang, who lived 2,500 years ago. His king ordered him to find the best horse in the country. He spent vast sums and returned with an exhausted, bony and ugly horse that had been pulling carriages. The king was dismayed but Sun assured him it would become the best horse in the kingdom. And it did.

Since then, ancient Chinese scholar-officials often cited that story, hoping that a bo le could see beyond their own exterior, recognize their real value and let them develop their talent.

A few dozen years later, a man named Guo Wei told his king a story about how to attract talented people to the kingdom. He described a horse scout looking for the best horse in the kingdom. When he followed the stories and found the horse, the equine had died. The scout paid 50 kilograms of gold for the corpse and took it back to the capital.

Having learned that he would pay such large sum just for the corpse, horse traders around the country rushed to him with their best horses, hoping for a better price. The scout ended up with many fine horses.

“You can treat me like the dead horse’s corpse,” Guo told his king. The ruler built an elaborate mansion for him, filled it with servants and fulfilled his every wish, to show others how he treated a talented person.

Famous horses

Many famous horses figured in Chinese history.

Chi Tu (red rabbit), the mount of warlord Lu Bu in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), was described in the classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” Lu and his famous horse were described this way: “If you are a person, you want to be Lu Bu and if you are a horse, you want to be Chi Tu.”

The black horse Wu Zhui belonged to famous general Xiang Yu (232-202 BC) who committed suicide by cutting his own throat and drowning himself after he was defeated. He earlier asked someone to take care of the horse, but it jumped into the river to follow his master.

The Akhal-Teke, a famous Central Asian breed from Turkmenistan, has been a coveted war horse throughout history for its speed and endurance. It’s sometimes called the “sweat blood horse” or han xue bao ma and experts say it’s possible that blood vessels are visible through thin skin, giving the illusion that the horse sweats blood.

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